February 15, 1779 was a momentous day in the history of English-language hymnwriting. In February 1779, the American Revolution was still under way, and an attempt by French and American forces to recapture Savannah, Georgia had just failed. Armies on both sides were gearing up for their summer campaigns. So it would perhaps be understandable if one of the most momentous days in the history of English-language hymnwriting went unnoticed at the time. On February 15, 1779, John Newton and William Cowper published Olney Hymns.
The hymnal was named after Olney, England, the town where Newton was a minister and William Cowper had lived. It was a small town of about 2,000 people, and very poor; 1,200 or so were employed at very low wages in making lace. So Newton and Cowper wrote their hymns to be appreciated by the common man. Many have aimed for this goal, but few ever achieved it as successfully as Newton and Cowper. This hymnal included the songs “There is a Fountain,” “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and, perhaps most significantly, a hymn introduced under the rather unassuming title “Faith’s Review and Expectations.”
Now “Faith’s Review and Expectations” was in the first section of the book, songs drawn from specific passages of Scripture, and listed as its source passage I Chronicles 17:16-17: “Then King David went in and sat before the Lord; and he said: “Who am I, O Lord God? And what is my house, that You have brought me this far? And yet this was a small thing in Your sight, O God; and You have also spoken of Your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have regarded me according to the rank of a man of high degree, O Lord God.”
Perhaps few would guess the hymn this passage inspired (and, if you’re ever in a trivia game, throwing in the original title would serve more to confuse things than to clarify!) But perhaps the most obvious parallel comes from the phrase “that You have brought me this far” and the third verse of the song that we know today as “Amazing Grace.”
Newton’s original first four verses are quite familiar:
1. Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, hut now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
2. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!
3. Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
4. The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Less familiar, though, are the two verses Newton used to conclude the song:
5. Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
6. The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be for ever mine.
The verse we sing today as the last verse, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years,” was a later addition by another writer. There’s nothing wrong with that verse, but it’s also interesting to see how Newton originally intended for his own song to conclude. Ultimately, he comes to the same conclusion, when he says that “God, who called me here below / will be forever mine,” but along the way, he uses more unusual allusions (“within the veil”) and metaphors (“dissolve like snow”).